Copper in Wales

The history of copper in Wales has a long history, from its origins over 4000 years ago to the virtual monopoly exercised by Welsh businesses in the global trade in the later eighteenth century.

Deep History

Copper ore from the Great Orme Mine, Llandudno (By permission of the Great Orme Mines)Humans have had a longer relationship with copper than with any other metal. The oldest known copper tools were found in Serbia and are 7500 years old. The earliest copper artefacts found in Wales are over 4000 years old, dating between 2500-2100BC.

Bronze Age palstaves (axe heads) found at Cwmllynfell, Neath-Port Talbot (© National Museum of Wales)From 2200BC metalworkers added tin and lead to copper to make bronze tools, weapons and ornaments.

Around 4000 years ago, miners began to exploit copper ores from deep open casts at sites in central and northern Wales, such as at Parys Mountain, Amlwch and at Copa Hill, Cwmystwyth. Both sites were re- exploited during the Industrial Revolution. Welsh Bronze Age copper mines, particularly at Great Orme, Llandudno, provide leading evidence of early mining in Europe.

Copper continued to be mined and worked into the Roman period, such as at Great Orme, Llanymynech and Machynlleth. The slow technological developments of the Middle Ages were assisted by foreign expertise, notably from Germany, forming the foundations of what happened next in Wales’s copper story.

The Copper Revolution

Neath Abbey with smelting works in the background from Edward Donovan, Excursions in South Wales and Monmouthshire, 1805 (© National Museum of Wales)The first Welsh copper smelting works was established at Aberdulais in 1584. It was also in the Neath Valley, in the late seventeenth century, that copper smelting, refining and working first became a commercial concern in Wales.

The valley’s waterfalls provided the power for two copper mills near Neath Abbey, the first of which opened in 1694. These works supplied the copper and brass manufacturing industries in Bristol and Wandsworth, London.

Great scarcity of money there [Swansea]: mostly dealings for credit and bad persons to trust. The neap tides no conveyance to Cornwall by shipping. By which it appears as if the River was not so good in its navigation then as now.

Robert Morris junior on his father’s work in the industry, 1727 from his History of the Copper Concern, 1774.
(Source: Louise Miskell (ed.), Robert Morris and the First Swansea Copper Works c.1727-1730, 2010)

In the early eighteenth century entrepreneurs took great risks for uncertain rewards. Dr. John Lane of Bristol saw the commercial advantages of being based in Wales’s largest coal-exporting port and left Neath to open Swansea’s first copperworks at Landore on the banks of the River Tawe in 1717.

Lane became bankrupt in 1726 and left the Llangyfelach works at Landore to his partner Robert Morris. He pioneered ways of running a profitable business in the period before local banking facilities or canal and railway networks. This laid the foundations of Swansea’s dominance of the world’s copper industry.

An All-Welsh Affair

Plan of Parys Mountain Copper Mine, 1786 (Crown Copyright: RCAHMW)As smelting and refining technology improved in south Wales, the demand for copper increased. There was a greater incentive to find new sources of ore. Miner Roland Puw discovered a rich seam of copper ore in 1768 at Parys Mountain, Anglesey. This started a golden chapter in the story of Welsh copper.

The Parys Mine Company was formed in 1778, under the management of Thomas Williams, a lawyer-entrepreneur from Llanidan, Anglesey. In the 1780s and 90s Parys was the world’s most productive copper mine, producing about 44,000 tons a year at its peak. This output eclipsed that of the Cornish mines.

The extraordinary landscape of Mynydd Parys copper mines (Copper Kingdom Project, Amlwch Industrial Heritage Trust)Williams held a copper monopoly between 1778 and 1792. He operated mines in Anglesey, smelters in Swansea and south Lancashire, mills at Greenfield Valley and Holywell, Flintshire, and in the Thames Valley, southern England.

Williams had offices and warehouses in London, Birmingham and Liverpool giving him complete control over copper trade, manufacture and transport. In this period Wales dominated the world copper markets.

‘Copper King’ Thomas Williams by Sir Thomas Lawrence, about 1792-95 (© National Museum of Wales)

Let me advise you to be extremely cautious in your dealings with Williams. He is a perfect tyrant and not over tenacious of his word and will screw damned hard when he has got anybody in his vice.

A warning from Thomas Wilson to James Watt, both contemporaries of Thomas Williams, 15 September 1790.
(Source: J.R. Harris, The Copper King: Thomas Williams of Llanidan, 2003)

Download Deep History / Dadlwytho Hanes Dwfn (PDF, 774KB)

Download The Copper Revolution / Dadlwytho Y Chwyldro Copr (PDF, 750KB)

Download An All-Welsh Affair / Dadlwytho Menter Cwbl Gymreig (PDF, 770KB)

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